Getting beyond a blind date with science

CHICAGO — Journalists and scientists alike hugged the walls of the Imperial Ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago to listen to actor-turned-professor Alan Alda speak Feb. 15.

Candid and charismatic, Alda spoke for the 2014 AAAS Conference about the importance of communicating science. Throughout his lecture, Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science, Alda shared anecdotes on effective (and ineffective) science communication, rousing laughter from the hundreds in attendance, while emphasizing the need for face-to-face interactions, limiting technical language and acknowledging the role of emotion in storytelling.

Department Head of Entomology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne with Alan Alda before his plenary talk at the AAAS conference.

May Berenbaum, Department Head of Entomology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne snapped a selfie with Alan Alda before his plenary talk at the AAAS conference.

Alda’s advice to journalists was for them to use their “ignorance” to pull scientists away from their tendency to speak as if they were writing for their colleagues or other science experts.

He cautioned, that ignorance is a wonderful thing, “as long as it has curiosity attached to it.”

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It is a journalist’s lack of expertise in a particular field that challenges scientists to rephrase concepts for those without PhD’s. Researchers, he said, suffer from “the curse of knowledge.” They know something in such depth and such complexity, that they forget what it is like not to know.

He added that it is even more important to ensure journalists are participating in a genuine conversation. Jargon, or the particular words used by individuals in certain fields and professions, can muddle interactions on both sides of the equation.

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“I was so struck by how important it was to have a real conversation with the scientists,” Alda said. “When the conversation was a two-way street and we were looking each other in the eye, listening to what we were saying… They were trying to understand my question and I was trying to understand their answer,” he said.

“There was something between us that was human and warm. Intimate. Something that was plain and clear, drawing the humanity out of them.”

Alda believes this intimacy and openness leads to conversations that go beyond technicality and reiterate a truth all writers know — people respond deeply to stories.

Narratives that illicit strong emotions, whether they be fear, joy, disgust or sense of beauty, help form memories. “If you can find a way to let them have some emotion, they are going to be tuned in. It’s this human thing of wanting to hear a story, wanting to feel emotion, and that’s what we remember.”

Sprinkled between jokes and his insights on communication, Alda used videos and volunteers to drive these points home. He talked about a project called the Flame Challenge, where 11-year-olds come up with questions and judge scientists on their ability to effectively explain them. The winner the first year was a researcher who wrote a song to explain what a flame is. Warning: This cartoon video will have have most people singing along and defining incandescence by the end of it.

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And while this contest’s objective is to explain the in detail the intricacy behind certain processes and concepts,  sometimes it’s just about planting interest.

“You don’t have to say everything you know, often you just have to let them get interested in knowing more,” Alda said.

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